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A matter of judgment

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MUKUND PADMANABHAN

"Wines were judged in relation to price — a low-priced wine could earn a gold or a silver while a highly-priced wine might fetch only a bronze"

At the end of last month, I spent a day tasting some 75-odd international and Indian wines — that arrived in a seemingly interminable series of flights — at the Sommelier India Wine Challenge in Mumbai. It may sound like an easy day's work, but by 9 p.m., when we were finally done, I was so exhausted and so done with fermented grape that I would have accepted a can of Coke in lieu of a glass of 1947 Cheval Blanc.

Over 400 wines were entered into the competitions and 18 judges, divided into groups of three, were served the wines, under the watchful eye of the famous wine expert Steven Spurrier who, as head of the panel, was called on to intervene when there were differences among the judges or clarify a matter of procedure. At my table were the feisty wine educator Sonal Holland and the CEO of the Wine Society of India, who played chair and was extremely patient with differing points of view.

Organised by Reva Singh, the Editor of Sommelier India magazine and the Wine Society of India, the Wine Challenge was held under semi-blind tasting conditions. Varietal, country of origin, and price band were revealed and like wines were tasted with like — so the flights were made up of say international bubblies, Indian Cabernet Sauvignons, Napa Valley Chardonnays and so on.

The procedure followed was not unlike many other wine competitions held abroad, but I do have reservations about the price band being revealed to the judges. The logic for doing so of course is entirely reasonable. We were being asked to judge the wines in relation to price — which means that a decent low-priced wine could earn a gold or a silver while a highly-priced wine of similar value might fetch only a bronze or a mere commendation.

But revealing price also has its drawbacks. Repeated experiments on blind tastings have shown that price has a huge impact on the way people assess wines. High price tags influence people to believe the wines are good, sometimes better than they are; the converse is just as true. Even if this is exactly what price revelation seeks to negate, it produces a result in which some very average wines bag golds and some absolutely stunning wines get lesser results. Inevitably, this is what happened at the SIWC. Yes, it was an intended outcome, but I had a vague sense of unease that, for example, a couple of pretty mediocre bottles of Indian wine were awarded gold when some extraordinary tempranillo blends managed only silvers and bronzes.

The problem is not merely one of personal unease though. Many Indian wine consumers are likely to be unaware that the medals are related to price and the overall context in which the entries were judged. One solution, at least for the really low priced wines then, is to make it clear on the medals that these are really value-for-money golds, silvers and bronzes.

But in a larger sense, the absence of context is more a cavil than a criticism. The SIWC is the first non-trade wine competition held in the country, the judging panel was entirely comprised of Indians or those based in India, and — most importantly — it was conducted via a process that was fair and equitable.

The SIWC, which is likely to go on to become an annual event, has the potential to set the benchmarks against which Indian wines and international wines imported into India are judged. It has got off to a fine start and the challenge is to make it even better.

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